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How the Charlie Hebdo attack has changed free speech in France and the US

How the Charlie Hebdo attack has changed free speech in France and the US

Sam Berkhead | January 08, 2016

On Jan. 7, 2015, two extremists shot and killed 12 people at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, over cartoons published of the Prophet Muhammad. Over the next two days, the death toll in Paris would rise to 17.

Despite — or in spite of — last year’s terrorist attack, Charlie Hebdo has endured, recently printing 1 million copies for its special edition marking the attack's one-year anniversary.

"I don't think anything changed since [that day], except the emptiness we are suffering," Charlie Hebdo Managing Editor Gerard Biard told the BBC. "We miss the people, the friends, the talent, [but] we try to maintain the same spirit. I think we managed to."

Yet in the year that has passed, our concept of free speech and free press has changed significantly. Charlie Hebdo, a publication known for its provocative and controversial tone, is one of many news outlets around the world to come under criticism since the attack. And in the wake of November's Paris terror attacks, the ability of the press to publish freely is under even more danger.

“In those [Charlie Hebdo] murders, the concept of free expression worldwide was challenged,” said Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and its First Amendment Center.

To mark the attack's anniversary, a group of media professionals, journalists and free speech experts gathered at the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C. to analyze the changes in how we view free speech and examine their implications.

Charlie Hebdo’s publishing of cartoons depicting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad was a perceived blasphemy to the gunmen who carried out the killings. After the attack, many viewed the cartoons — and Charlie Hebdo — as being Islamophobic in nature.

However, Caroline Fourest, editor of ProChoix magazine and a former Charlie Hebdo contributor, believes it’s every journalist’s right to be able to publish blasphemous content. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are often taken out of context, their message distorted to help the killers’ propaganda, she said.

“Charlie Hebdo is known in France as one of the most anti-racist newspapers,” she explained. “It’s not only unprofessional as journalists to describe Charlie Hebdo as Islamophobic, it’s not only wrong and false — it is really dangerous. How is Charlie Hebdo living today? They are living like prisoners because they are all under police protection.”

Yet the right to blaspheme has become less of a priority in France and all over the world. One year after Charlie Hebdo, many journalists are more focused on their safety than ensuring their rights aren’t being compromised.

“Our first priority, even in France today, is to stay alive,” she said. “Before this year, I used to think only living under a theocracy was dangerous for journalists. It’s not only living under a theocratic state that’s dangerous for journalists; living in a democracy is dangerous for journalists and free-thinkers too.”

Robert Corn-Revere, a leading First Amendment lawyer in the U.S., said a similar phenomenon has taken place in the U.S. since the Charlie Hebdo attack.

“Do you protect the right to offend, or do you protect the right not to be offended?” he said. “The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is predicated on the notion that we don’t have freedom unless there is a freedom to offend.”

Despite these rights, the majority of U.S. news organizations refused to publish Charlie Hebdo’s front page in the wake of last year’s attack, Corn-Revere said. This ultimately leads to a disparity in how the First Amendment is perceived and how it’s actually interpreted and put into action by newsrooms.

“How courageous are we being when it comes to these expressions [of free speech]?” he said. “It’s one thing to wear a Je Suis Charlie button. It’s quite another if your editorial board decides not to publish any of the images from Charlie Hebdo.”

Knowing all this, what can be done to protect free speech — both in France and the U.S.?

Policinski stressed that governments and news organizations alike must balance the need for safety with the need for free speech. Free speech and free press are rights that come with some conditions in order to keep people safe — but nor should these rights be compromised for the sake of keeping people safe from being offended.

“As we take the lessons of Charlie Hebdo, even facing these tragic murders and acts by terrorists, we cannot surrender that idea of safety over the idea of freedom," he said. "It has to be our ultimate defense. We know from history that that is ultimately what triumphs.”

Watch the full discussion below:

Main image and secondary image taken by Sam Berkhead.

Pictured [left to right]: Hadas Gold, Robert Corn-Revere, Delphine Halgand, Gene Policinski and Renaud Beauchard.

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